Me and Ben Nicholson’s Red Circle

Little Notes

July 6, 2020

Illustration by Christine Chang Hanway.

When Henry and Irina (Moore) needed their flat back, Herbert (Read) and Ludo (Margaret Ludwig) moved into number 3 Mall Studios where they stayed for almost five years. Ben (Nicholson) came round shortly after they had moved in, had a look around, left and came back with a round cork mat, still wet with scarlet paint. Ben had decided that the distance between the top of the picture hanging above the mantelpiece and ceiling was too great, so he and Herbert moved the red circle ‘up the white wall until they found the exact place for it to stay’. Read called it a single ‘accent of colour, perfectly placed.’ Barbara (Hepworth) remembered the cork mat in her statement for the Unit One catalogue: ‘Objects that we place near to each other, in their different aspects and relationships create new experience. A scarlet circle on the wall, a slender white bottle on a shelf near it, a bright blue box and lovely-shaped fishing floats that rest in the hand like a bird.’

Above excerpt from Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean; p. 118.

In the first month of Lockdown, I came upon the above words in my monthly book club read, Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean on page 118. Adjusting to the new norm, including getting used to doing book club on Zoom, we decided that reading about how the Hampstead Modernists romped around our part of London in the 1930’s might be a good escape. The artists’ passion for creating the new frontier of British Modernism managed to also expand into an exuberance for extra marital affairs. Not a single Covid-19 worry in the air and we read to live vicariously.

Early spring, we Londoners were allowed to exercise outside an hour a day. At night, my book club would read. And in the day, we followed in the footsteps of Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Walter Gropius, Henry Moore et al., soaking up their ghosts along with the most beautiful spring we have seen in years.

These words delighted me in particular. I imagined the young and excitable Ben Nicholson living his art, where everything from paper and cardboard to solid walls was an opportunity for spatial exploration. And I thought, “I’m going to try and draw that moment”.

As with all things in Lockdown, time had unexpectedly flown and I didn’t get around to actually doing the drawing until weeks later — post George Floyd.

Drawing Ben Nicholson’s moment began as a fun, lighthearted visual exploration. In the process of moving the red circle up and down the white wall of my drawing, the exercise became something more. I realised that George Floyd’s senseless and violent death had marked a point in time for me in my own self development and understanding of racism; how we got to where we are today and moving forward from that point. As you know from my previous posts Keeping the Rain Off Our Heads  and My Broken Wild Heart, I have embarked on a journey of education and action toward becoming an antiracist. This week I am listening to the NY Times podcast 1619 and reading America’s Enduring Caste System a New York Times Magazine feature by Isabel Wilkerson.

Like a visual mantra, Ben Nicholson’s Red Circle will now always remind me that we live in a continually changing world where nothing has to stay the same. Nor should it. If we consciously choose to see things through a different lens, we can create new experiences that help to make the world a more equitable place and better one for us all.

Here’s to keeping safe in our brave new post Lockdown London.

"Abstract with Red Circle" Linocut printed in black ink with a red circle hand-coloured in gouache by Ben Nicholson, 1937.

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